Friday, September 2, 2016

Dallas Holdout Stumps New Urbanism

If you're white, relatively prosperous, and ambitious, gentrification could be something from which you benefit.

At least, if you like big, aging cities that have managed to cultivate a hip grunge vibe within their older neighborhoods.

Gentrification allows mostly white, mostly affluent, mostly educated people to live closer to the center of a city than they could in suburbia.  Indeed, to gentrifiers, suburbia is anathema; it's where their parent live, it's where they grew up, it's vanilla and malls and so very, very not trendy.

The problem with gentrification, however, isn't that it's helping to revitalize vast swaths of America's biggest cities that just a few years ago were the not only not trendy, but quite dangerous as well.  Few fault gentrification because it helps salvage derelict buildings.  Gentrification provides an infusion of desperately-needed economic vitality, and repurposes land that has languished on city tax rolls.

The problem with gentrification isn't even that it mostly benefits affluent white people.  This is not so much a racial issue, as it is one of economics.  Hey, revitalizing old neighborhoods takes a lot of money.  Mostly because the people who have lived there during decades of urban decay haven't been able to afford to maintain their properties well.  Yes, urban blight is a direct result of white flight, but most of the whites moving back and "reclaiming" neighborhoods that became minority-majority don't see skin color.

They see opportunity.  They see shops and restaurants within walking distance of their apartments.  They see charismatic old buildings with details and craftsmanship you can't find these days in new construction.  They see a different type of lifestyle that requires less household maintenance than their parents have in suburbia, with those sprawling lawns.

Gentrification is not some racist ploy to make life miserable for the blacks and Hispanics who disproportionately filled-in the urban core as whites fled it.  Gentrification is an economic reaction to social trends that, actually, indicates far less hostility towards racial and cultural differences than those trends did that created urban blight to begin with.

But that doesn't mean gentrification doesn't have costs - especially for people who can't afford it.

Consider the case of Hinga Mbogo, who in 1986 dared to open an auto repair shop in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Dallas, Texas.  Back in the 80's, white flight had already decimated most of Ross Avenue, from downtown through Old East Dallas and beyond.  The formerly respectable Bryan Place neighborhood was reeling from its new status as a haven for drug dealers and gang wars.  Students at Dallas Theological Seminary, which held its ground on a leafy campus just south of Ross Avenue, and became something of a champion for urban missions, heard gunfire almost every night.

But Mbogo found a building he could afford, and opened his auto repair shop near where several others already operated.  It was about the only type of legitimate commercial enterprise that could survive in that environment.  His establishment is greasy and grimy, and completely unattractive.  But Mbogo cultivated a reputation for honesty and hard work.  He'd always wanted to own his own business, and Dallas was helping him fulfill that ambition.

He was a striver from Africa.  His skin color may be black, and he's striving towards a goal many college-educated white strivers wouldn't ever consider for themselves.  But Mbogo was there when Ross Avenue was at its worst.

Now that neighborhoods all around downtown Dallas are being rediscovered by those white strivers, however, Dallas officials want him gone.

Or at least, they want his shop gone.  The city has re-zoned his property against his will, because his grimy auto repair shop doesn't fit with the trendy redevelopment plans developers have for his neighborhood.

If Mbogo's plight is beginning to ring a bell, perhaps its because his story has been percolating for about 11 years now, with media outlets as prestigious as the Wall Street Journal voicing support for him.  Here's a guy who assumed all the risk when he started his business, and now, when he's in his 60's, finds the city pulling the rug out from under him, using a rarely-deployed trick akin to eminent domain, to deprive him of his livelihood.

How un-American is that?!

City hall's defenders contend that Mbogo has had 11 years to relocate his company.  And he's the last holdout along Ross Avenue.  Everybody else - there were several other similar businesses near Mbogo's affected by the city's 2005 edict - has already caved to city hall's pressure and moved out.  Mbogo has simply been the most stubborn, they say.  In 2013, he petitioned the city for a two-year allowance to defer his move.  He even publicly promised the city that he'd move his shop.  He claimed he was a man of integrity, and the city could take him at his word.

Yet he hasn't moved.  His deferment expired in April of 2015.  And Dallas officials say that now Mbogo has gone back on his word.  Not only that, but Mbogo has dug in, rallying his customers and supporters across Dallas (and now, the country), to defy the rezoning of his property.

In November of 2015, Mbogo held a press conference, asking for another extension and presenting a petition with 90,000 affirmations of support.  He was joined by lawyers from the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group that threatened to sue the city for Mbogo.

Instead, this past July, Dallas sued Mbogo, fining him $1,000 for each day since April of last year that he's kept his Ross Avenue shop open.  And that financial clock is ticking even today, and will for however long Mbogo doesn't move his business.

Is this what gentrification is supposed to be about?

Mbogo's detractors say that the law is the law, and he's violating it.  But what if the re-zoning was unfair to begin with?

Mbogo's detractors say he's standing in the way of progress that will benefit far more people that just Mbogo, his family, and his employees.  But are gourmet bakeries, high-priced restaurants, and hip wine bars suitable replacements for businesses run out of town simply because developers wanted the land for more lucrative projects?

Do the ends justify the means?

It's not like Mbogo is running a strip club, or a lead smelter.  It would be funny, though, if he was running an old bar - a bar that would likely be considered seedy by his new neighbors, who want their alcohol served in an establishment suitably reminiscent of a dive-like place, but still trendy enough not to be classified as "seedy."

Yet now his detractors say he's not being fair, considering how all of his old neighbors have been forced to close or move their businesses without the types of special favors he's gotten - and still wants - from the city.

Of course, the big problem here isn't Mbogo, or his auto repair shop.  It wasn't all of the other private businesses that have also been affected by the Ross Avenue redevelopment plans. The problem here is the Utopian visions developers and Dallas officials have for their new city.

Isn't it ironic how people who generally claim to be so pro-minority and pro-diversity suddenly become anti-local when it comes to their views on gentrification!  Okay, so people like Mbogo leveraged white flight, but doesn't he deserve not only the benefits of being a legal property owner, but also the benefits of holding his own when his Ross Avenue neighborhood was indeed one of the most neglected and dangerous in the city?

It's not that Dallas and its politicians don't have the right to zone a property according to their perceptions of what a neighborhood needs.  Indeed, if they'd decided to apply a new zoning designation on Mbogo's property to exclude an auto repair shop when he sells the property, that would be both normal and fair.  After all, Mbogo probably could have sold his property for top-dollar to somebody who wanted to construct a new luxury apartment building on the site.  That would be conventional capitalism at work, as Dallas continues to evolve.  As it is, Mbogo now claims that his property is hardly worth anything, since developers know about his protracted fight with the city.  Being forced out at this point means he has no negotiating power.

So that's his own fault, right?  Or is it unfair to Mbogo that his property was retroactively re-zoned, kicking him out?  City lawyers insist their tactic isn't eminent domain, since the city isn't officially reclaiming the property.  But isn't that merely a technicality?

Oddly enough, part of the fascination new urbanists used to cherish in old American cities involved the kind of organic randomness one finds in established neighborhoods that have undergone a series of transitions.  There's a quirkiness to places that have been around a while; a mix of styles and uses the likes of which suburbanization remains too new and regimented to have experienced.  Our urban fabric is frayed in places, and that used to be an attractive quality to more affluent newcomers.  They used to willingly tolerate - even embrace - the grime and grit of urbanity's tendency for aesthetic disorder.

So, has gentrification itself evolved?  At least in Dallas, anyway, it seems that new urbanists want a pre-packaged type of sterile cosmopolitanism that looks more like a TV sitcom set from Seinfeld or Friends than raw reality.

Those bumpy brick pavers, for instance, that cities paved over to keep car axles from breaking; those are now aesthetically desirable, even though women walking across them in designer heels look as though they're going to twist an ankle.  But a car repair shop?  Isn't there, like, a bad part of town where those should be located?

Too bad if Ross Avenue used to be one of those bad parts of town.

Although, considering how essential cars are in Dallas - despite the city's astronomic pricetag for its flashy light rail system - wouldn't having a reliable car repair shop located down the street from one's over-priced grunge-ethos loft be a plus?

When Mbogo opened his shop in 1986, his dream was to be an American entrepreneur.  And while the city of Dallas hasn't exactly denied him that dream - he could have acquiesced, sold out, and bought a place where his shop could relocate - they're certainly sounding very un-American.

Or does living in America not only involve dreams like Mbogo's, but also the dreams of big-money developers who think the plans for which they're striving outclass dreams like Mbogo's?

As it is, it wasn't fair for the city to re-zone Mbogo out of his business's current location.  Just because other businesses didn't fight city hall doesn't mean Mbogo shouldn't, either.  And while it does seem a bit awkward for Mbogo to obviously go back on his promise to move, perhaps a compromise can be found?

After all, with his rising notoriety and media fame, letting Mbogo keep his auto repair shop on Ross Avenue as trendy new hipster developments spring up all around it will make him and his shop something of a local landmark.  And new urbanists are supposed to love local landmarks.

Except when the complaints start trickling in from Mbogo's new neighbors.  Complaints about revving engines, clanking equipment, unpleasant odors, puddles of oil...

New urbanists like their grit and grime to be seen and not heard.  Or smelled.  Or even seen, unless it's really, like, super-photogenic.

Either way, whether he moves or stays, Mbogo is going to end up being forced to comply with somebody else's dictates.

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